Chapter 86: The Great Flood of Grossetto.
Nov 2,1944 Grosetto, Italy. Della Volpe and I slept right through breakfast, so when we awoke I brewed up some coffee and Stripling came over to join us. We drew comfort rations this morning, consisting of one dozen cans of beer, 4 cokes and 15 packs of cigarettes.
I traded all my beer and coke for cigarettes, because they have a greater trade value.
Flight chief Carl Volter told me to go to the flying line and draw a tool box from supply. I went there but supply said that I already had a tool box. I told them that I did but it was not complete however they refused to change their position.
By tomorrow we have to drop our 100 gallon gasoline belly tanks and hang 75 gallon tanks. Stripling and I got into his Italian truck and tried to get the new tanks but we got stuck in the mud four times, and finally had to give it up. After lunch we heard that a Dam high up in the mountains north of Grosetto has burst and flooded the entire valley. More importantly however, it has caused a huge wave of water to rush towards Grosetto, threatening to sweep everything in its path into the sea.
The enlisted men’s camp is on Grosetto beach, which is an island separated from the mainland by a canal with a bridge. We heard that the water has risen to 4 feet in Grosetto, and it is expected to rise even higher. We tried to drive to the flying line in order to tie down the airplanes, but we couldn’t get through.
At our camp we are sweating out the flood reaching us because we are only a few miles away from Grosetto. Dell and Indian White were going out on a date driving their Italian truck, but they got caught by the flood and had to abandon the truck. The last they saw of it, it was half way under water! I drew candy rations in the afternoon which I traded for more cigarettes.
Nov 3,1944 At 12 PM last night, the guards got everybody out of bed so we could be evacuated because the flood had already reached our day room. I threw a rope over the limb in a nearby tree that was tall and thick and hoisted my footlocker 20 feet in the air. It contains all my good clothing and valuables, and hopefully it will be spared even though the whole camp is washed out to sea. I grabbed two blankets and 2 packs of cigarettes and headed for the bridge at the canal.
Upon arrival at the bridge we found to our horror that it no longer existed. Even worse was the fact that the normally docile slow moving calm water in the canal was now a raging torrent upon whose turbulent muddy surface floated haystacks, cattle, drums of gasoline, tree trunks and myriad other objects. Sgt. George Coyle had somewhere found a rowboat, however it could not be rowed broadside to the current without capsizing.
Colonel Yates arranged to get a rope across by tying it on a telephone line that ran across the canal. The boat was tied in the middle of the rope and it was powered by a winch mounted on the front of a two and a half ton truck. The boat was pulled across to our bank of the canal and our squadron commander sat in the rear seat with an oar so he could keep the boat facing the current.
The 200 enlisted men viewing this set-up could not help thinking that the odds were against it working. The men in my tent all volunteered and we set off with high hopes for the other bank. We got half way across when the rope broke on the other side, and we were pulled back to our own bank. Another rope was pulled through by means of the telephone wire and we started off again. This time the rope broke on the beach side when we were half way across, and we were pulled the rest of the way across to the mainland.
We now found ourselves tied up to that bank, but the muddy bank rose vertically 10 feet above us! After coming this far, were we to be frustrated in our effort to be evacuated? Suddenly two men, holding on to each other hung down from the top, held by other men, and pulled us up, one at a time! We could not believe our good fortune!
Ceferino Vigil (my best friend) and I took off for the town of Castiglione in his Italian Fiat automobile, There was no action in town, so at 5 AM we went the officers club at Castiglione beach and slept in arm chairs until 8 AM (breakfast time). We then returned to the canal and spent the whole day pulling the rest of our men across the canal to safety.
All that is, except about 28 hardy (or foolish) souls who remained in the day room swilling beer until they became maudlin, and sweating out the tidal wave and flood! The water is now 14 feet high in Grosetto and half of the bridges in the surrounding countryside have been blown away.
I am now a refugee, whose only comforts are two blankets and 2 packs of cigarettes. In future when I hear about people becoming refugees, I shall not adopt a blasé attitude about it!
So ends part 86 of my wartime memoirs.